Revisiting Arthur C. Clarke’s Breakout Novel ‘Childhood’s End’ on the Eve of Its Adaptation

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On the face of it, Childhood’s End is an odd choice of source material. Stanley Kubrick expressed interest in it before moving on, rather successfully, to another Arthur C. Clarke story; Universal held the rights for a while, but the project never went anywhere. Now, Syfy has turned Clarke’s 1953 novel into a three-night miniseries, premiering Monday night and headlined by prestige cable alumni Charles Dance (Game of Thrones), Yael Stone (Orange Is the New Black), and Julian McMahon (Nip/Tuck). Yet it’s difficult to imagine how Clarke’s earliest classic will translate to the screen.

For one thing, Childhood’s End doesn’t actually have one of the basic building blocks of a series, even a limited one: consistent characters. In many ways, Childhood’s End is the perfect distillation of concept over plot, the defining trait that makes science fiction so compelling to its fans and off-putting to its holdouts. It’s a story told on such a massive scale, in both time (centuries of human history) and space (the entirety of planet Earth), that Clarke resists approaching it through a single, unified perspective. The tactic’s a bold move that makes Childhood’s End a foundational text of its genre — but it’s also a text without a central protagonist with whom a reader can identify and experience Clarke’s world.

Said world is an Earth that, sometime around the turn of the 21st century, has been suddenly and nonviolently occupied by extraterrestrials known simply as the Overlords. In an event that’s become an alien invasion story cliché in the half century since the novel’s publication, massive spaceships suddenly appear directly above Earth’s major cities; in a poetic touch, they arrive just as humankind has executed its first successful mission to Mars, instantly souring man’s greatest achievement to date into a pathetic demonstration of power.

Much of what happens after the Overlords’ arrival, however, slowly undermines the more menacing connotations of its premise. The Overlords intervene only minimally in human affairs; in fact, for the first half-century of their time on Earth, they refuse to show themselves altogether, communicating entirely through one-on-one summits between Rikki Stormgren, the Finnish Secretary General of the United Nations, and Karellen, the Overlord who acts as Earth’s “Supervisor.” Even these sessions, where Karellen issues edicts banning cruelty to animals or mandating the formation of a World State, are conducted with a screen obscuring Karellen’s face.

Eventually, the Overlords reveal themselves — but only after 50 years, when Rikki Stormgren has passed and Earth has spent several generations without war or material need thanks to Overlord policies and technology. The event, just a third of the way through the book, is when Childhood’s End starts to pivot from the typical concerns of an invasion story (mounting suspicion and nascent rebellions, à la V) and toward something much more conceptual; Clarke leaves the competent, skeptical Stormgren behind for Jan Rodricks, a South African astrophysicist determined to investigate the Overlords’ home world, and George and Jean Gregsson, a couple whose children start to manifest supernatural abilities.

To synopsize the plot much further would spoil the kind of confused awe Clarke is aiming for, as would describing the Overlords’ actual appearance. (It’s the one detail regarding the miniseries Syfy has specifically embargoed before Monday, and with good reason.) Suffice it only to say that Clarke shifts from traditional science fiction into near-mysticism, addressing questions of individualism versus collectivism , and humanity’s limitations versus what makes it exceptional, on a more abstract level than even a global invasion by hyper-intelligent super-beings would initially suggest.

The sudden shift in genre rankled some critics at the time, and it’s easy to see why. Immediate, and obvious, questions about the Overlords’ motives give way to more cerebral considerations like the spiritual cost of prosperity or intelligence, abandoning plot altogether to dwell on them for pages at a time. (One could see how this would appeal to the man who eventually made 2001: A Space Odyssey.) But they’re also what make Childhood’s End such an anomaly, refusing to remain a story of good humans versus bad, or even subtly bad, alien invaders.

Syfy, and series writer Matthew Graham, certainly face a challenge in translating both the minimal action into a narrative that plays well onscreen and Cold War-era themes into terms that resonate in 2015. The original Childhood’s End, however, is worth revisiting on its own terms as an early classic that still stands apart from the genre it helped create.